‘We nearly went broke a couple of times’: Celebrity chef Matt Moran

‘We nearly went broke a couple of times’: Celebrity chef Matt Moran

While now a household name thanks to TV shows such as MasterChef and Paddock to Plate, Matt Moran reveals he has struggled just like every business owner to build a profitable enterprise.

Celebrity chef Matt Moran“When I first started I was in the kitchen, and I was in the kitchen over 100 hours a week, and Peter, my [business] partner at the time, was on the floor. We found it really tough for the first year, we nearly went broke a couple of times because we just had no idea what we were doing,” he explains.

“It was really important that we actually started surrounding ourselves with people who knew better and learning off [them].”

Speaking on-location at Chiswick, one of his Sydney venues, Matt opens up with My Business and reveals:

  • How he got to where he is over 26 years in business
  • The strategy behind his business merger
  • His approach to finding suitable venues
  • Why he digs into his own pocket to pay company suppliers

Plus loads more!

 

Full transcript

Adam Zuchetti: Welcome to the My Business Podcast. Thanks so much for tuning in. We are live onsite in Woollahra. Andy, do you want to tell us where we are today?

Andy Scott: We're just down the road from my house actually, in the beautiful grounds of Chiswick Restaurant in Paddington, with today's special guest.

Adam: Today's special guest is a stranger to virtually no one...

Matt Moran: ...Woollahra, not Paddington.

Adam: Yes.

Andy: Well there we go, what a local I am.

Adam: There you go, mistake already Andy. That's terrible. So we've got the famed chef, Matt Moran, on the podcast today, and we're live from one of his many restaurants. Matt, thanks so much for joining us.

Matt: Pleasure. Pleasure. Good to be here.

Adam: Now, you started your career at 22. Well, you actually opened your first restaurant at age 22. That's got to be quite a difficult challenge to bring credibility and to build a business from such a young age. How did you really go about doing that and using that as the launch pad for your career today?

Matt: You know, I started cooking a lot earlier than that. I was only 15 when I started my apprenticeship. I had finished my apprenticeship by the time I was 19. And I worked in a lot of good restaurants. I met a guy, Peter Sullivan, who was my business partner for a very long time. He's now sitting on a beach somewhere, I think. He got bought out a couple years ago.

By the time I was 22, I wanted to do things for myself, and wasn't that interested in being told what to do anymore. So, Peter and I went looking for a site, and we found the back of the Paddington Inn, which is the pub, which strangely enough, is now mine again. Which is one of the hotels that we run. I thought at that early age, I'm young enough, if it fails, I can start again if I have to.

Adam: How did that really come full circle to establish a business, sell it, and then to bring it back into your portfolio later on?

Matt: Well, the landlord at the time, so, that was what, 26 years ago, 27 years ago, was Bruce Sullivan, who's now my partner. So, I merged with his pub group about two years ago. So, they all came back into the fold. There's 31 businesses in the group now.

Andy: Chefs are known for their drive and making sure everything is right in the kitchen. Was it always something that escalated? That you decided you wanted to run a restaurant, or did you always want to be?

Matt: My first ambition was when I was working at Parramatta RSL and I became quite friendly with the guy on the deep fryer. And, all he ever wanted to do was on the grill, and I just thought stuff it. If I could ever get on the deep fryer one day, I would be happy. And, that was the extent of the ambition, I think, until I actually started doing it. And then realising that I was all right at it, and that progression came from there.

We, obviously, have plans and structure and what we want to do, but things come to us all the time. And, it's just always been a progression. I never thought of ever owning my first restaurant, but then when that happened, then I wanted to own more.

Adam: Really curious, you were saying that there's 31 restaurants across the group...

Matt: Venues.

Adam: Venues.

Matt: So, that's the management company. The management company, Solotel, which I own with Bruce Sullivan. We run 31 venues, some of them we manage for other people, but the majority of them are owned and operated by ourselves.

Adam: So how do you spread yourself across all of those to maintain a uniform level of quality?

Matt: Well, I don't. I have good people that do it for me. You know, with any good business you're only as good as your staff. I've been very, very lucky. I've got great staff that have been with me for a very long time.

Our CEO's been with us for 23 years. She used to be a young licensee of a pub, she used to a sommelier for me at Aria. You know, CFO's ... Our management team is very strong and the majority of them are, as she'd been, out of hospitality, so they get it. And, I think that's a big key, you know. With all my chefs. And, a lot of them have been with me for well and truly over ten years. All the head chefs in the spaces, they understand. Well, we can understand them because we are from that genre.

Andy: Now, I was going to ask about that, because obviously, some people are great at running business, some people are great at preparing food and making food. The two don't always mix...

Matt: No, they don't.

Andy: When you first started going, what was more important to you? Finding people that you could help with the business or finding people that shared your food vision?

Matt: There's no question when I first started I was in the kitchen. I was in the kitchen over 100 hours a week, and Peter, my partner at the time, was on the floor. We found it really tough the first year. We nearly went broke a couple times, because we just had no idea what we were doing.

And, I suppose, it was really important that we actually started surrounding ourselves with people who knew better, and learning off. And, I think that's basically what happened. Over the 30 odd years, how long have been cooking? 33 years, but I've been in business for myself for 26 years. So I suppose, of that time, I just surrounded myself with good people and learnt from them. Until you get to a certain point, is where you know what you want to do, and you know how to run it, and you know how to operate, you know your figures, and you know your costs, and you know what projections are and how to go about it.

Andy: You see yourself as a chef that owns businesses now or a business owner that used to be a chef?

Matt: I'm a chef slash restaurateur. You know, probably more of a restaurateur these days than a chef. The only two that I really spend time in are the two Aria's. We had a food tasting at Aria this afternoon, in Sydney. The rest of them, I've never proclaimed to be the chef. I oversee them. Chiswick that we're sitting in, Tom's the head chef. Tom's the creative. He will write a menu, show it to me, I'll add to it. I'll take away from it sometimes. Keep it on narrative. Keep it on what we want it to be. And then, we'll have a food tasting. It's not a dictatorship. We sit around, there might be four or five of us tasting the food. And then we all sign off on it.

I'll pop in every now and then, and make sure that the quality is still there. I pop in to them all the time when I'm around, as much as I can. And, Chiswick, here, happens to be halfway between my office and my house, so I'm often popping in here on the way home and having a bite to eat.

Adam: Coming back to the staff element, have you found it more difficult as your profile has risen to find the right staff, or has that become easier?

Matt: I think, I've always been lucky with the fine dining restaurants, to get staff, because that's where everyone wants work. They want that experience. I think since the merger with Solotel it's probably helped both of our companies, because we're a lot bigger, a lot more resourceful, and we're a lot sexier, I suppose. Because we're not just a pub group, we're not just a restaurant group, we're both, and catering, of course, also. So, I think that helped us a hell of a lot.

Also, for career progression. You can start as a bar maid, or a bartender, and then one day you can be a waiter or a section manager, or whatever in a fine dining restaurant. Or vice versa. You can start off in the fine dining restaurant and be a chef de partie, but you if you want the head chef's job, we can give you a job in a pub. A lot of sort-of cross pollination, I suppose.

Adam: Take us through the merger and how that came about, because one of the things that I found is really curious is a lot of business owners think, should I or shouldn't I? Am I going to lose control, is a big question. So, for you, how did that merger come about? And, has it resulted in a loss of control? What have been the pros and cons of it?

Matt: No, not at all. It was a merger of kinds. But, Bruce Sullivan, who owned Solotel, was also my business partner for 18 years. So, there was three of us involved. Peter Sullivan, Bruce, and myself. All equal on the side of Solotel and Morsel, which is my company. I bought Peter out, so then Bruce and I became 50/50.

In the merger, I don't think I lost control because I had people that were doing jobs for me anyway. I had a CEO at Morsel before the merger, so it was basically just two companies came together. Bruce and I are the owners. We're joint managing directors they call us these days. We have an agreement that if one doesn't want to do something, we don't do it. And, I think the strength of the business is that we are 50/50. I think that makes a hell of a difference. If someone has controlling power it doesn't really work.

We don't do anything unless we're both committed to it. And it seems to work. Look, it's worked for 18 years for us. It was just the management companies that came together. We became one. It was a different group managing the restaurants, there was a different group managing the pubs, and those two came together. So, it didn't change the ownership as such.

Adam: Has it been difficult to transition those from, sort-of, the restaurant and the pub divisions into one group?

Matt: When I moved into their offices, and we had to get new offices too, it kind of felt as though I was moving into my girlfriend's house. But it wasn't long before I knew where I knew where to put my toothbrush. I got the good corner office, so I was fine.

It's always a transition, and it's always difficult, but it's also exciting, and I think that's the way that we saw it. It was very exciting for the group. And everyone really sort of embraced that.

Andy: You started in fine dining and doing that, and, fine dining is, it's great, but it's a very tough business. As well, a lot of great restaurants don't make it. The move to take the pub side of things as well, what drove that decision?

Matt: I had worked in pubs, and I had worked at Paddington after fine dining. So, I knew a little bit about them, and I also owned some too. They don't have my face on them, that's all. Opera Bar, I've owned for 15 years. Riverbar in Sydney. The Abercrombie, Clovelly Hotel. They're my pubs too, so it's not as though I don't understand them. Trust me, I've had plenty of beers over the last 30 years.

Look, they're all hospitality. Hospitality is lots of different genres. Whether it's fine dining or whether it's a café or whether it's a pub bistro or whether it's catering. Hospitality is hospitality so it still has the same principle. Big smile, good service, good food.

Restaurants are probably a little bit different. People want good ambience. They want a nice seat. They want a good wine list. They want good service. They want good acoustics. If you look above here, you can see acoustic treated everything. So, it's a balance of everything.

Adam: Do each of the venues operate quite standalone?

Matt: Yeah they do.

Adam: So, it's not so much a company approach, it's very much tailoring everything to that particular venue and that particular audience and things like that?

Matt: Yeah, absolutely. A good example is the two Aria's. One in Brisbane and one in Sydney. I wanted them to be identical, but they're far from it. The reason is because they're in different states, different produce, different weather, different seasons, different head chefs, different sommeliers, different cities. So, they are different.

We do have a couple brands that we would love to roll out one day and do more of. The Chophouse in the city. I'd love to do a few more of those, whether it's in a state or whatever. We have a couple of little niche bar sort-of concepts that we do. Goros in Mary Street, which is like Japanese pub that we have. And it has karaoke and Japanese food. I'd love to do a few more of those one day.

Whether you can repeat them as being the same, I don't think you can ever make them identical. It's not a McDonald's. I think they all have their own little different characters, because let's face it. McDonald's are built for purpose. A lot of our sites we actually move into. So the architecture is gonna be different no matter what.

Andy: What's your go to karaoke song?

Matt: Whitney Houston "I Will Always Love You."

Andy: Brave.

Matt: I only said that because I watched a bit of that doco the other day on the plane the other day coming back from Perth. No not really. I don't know. I don't do karaoke. I like watching it.

Adam: But coming back to the new venues. Do you look to predominantly take over existing ones and then rebrand them and use them yourself? Or you really wanting to start from scratch?

Matt: It varies. To do a greenfield site is much more difficult. I've got two of them being built at the moment. One in Brisbane, which is Little Big House, which is a pub in South Bank, which is in old Queensland. Beautiful, beautiful site. Incredible site. Great venue. Great area. All brand new. New precinct, which hopefully we'll build on that. But, it's been three years in the making. We've had a lot of heritage issues. We designed it from scratch. We built it. We're building it. And, from there to go three years is a long period of time.

And if you want to really go into it, Barangaroo’s has probably been the hardest business I've ever tried to open. It's been over four years now. It's a three story place in Barangaroo. It's a building, which is standalone. It's the only standalone building in Barangaroo. And we've taken the whole three floors. So we've got a pub on the bottom. We've got a beautiful, not calling it fine dining, we're calling it fun dining in the middle. And then an incredible rooftop bar, which Sydney doesn't have many of. And that's to be exciting. That's to be over 900 seats in all. And that's been going on for over four years. That's a greenfield site. That's from scratch. Budget blowouts. Cancellation issues. Licencing issues...

You can do that, or you can go and buy Clovelly Hotel or the Chophouse. And buy it six weeks before and open it and keep running the way that it is. And so you've changed things. It's a lot harder to do clean sites, but it's probably a little bit more rewarding in the end, too.

Adam: Rewarding in terms of financially, or just the emotional, I suppose?

Matt: I didn't think money for a second then. Rewarding as building something and seeing something grow and open and being a success. I suppose money comes after that. But to me it's the love of it. The love of building something, creating something from scratch. And having a narrative.

Chiswick is a great example of something that we built, which not a lot of people were doing back in those days. It's real paddock to plate. Real shared food. And it's been one of our biggest successes. It's an unbelievable business. Great business. We spent only two years rebuilding this whole site. To make it look really old again. But everything is brand new.

Andy: You've mentioned the narrative there. You've said it a couple of times. Yeah. How important is that in driving what you do with the business?

Matt: Narrative is really important, not just for us, but for also the staff and the people that work in it. Chiswick, for example, has a narrative of paddock to plate, fresh seasonal produce. Not to tricky. Just cooked really well. Lots of fire. We've got a big wood oven in there.

And every now and then, the people that work here have to look at the narrative again just to make sure that they're actually on track. Don't get me wrong, the head chef here, Tom, is absolutely brilliant. I love him, love him to death. But, he's a chef and he's creative and sometimes he wants to be too creative for what the narrative is. And every now and then you just gotta remind him, and reel it back in. And I think that's really important in any business. If you get too far off track, you lose that narrative. You lose the heart and soul of the business. And restaurants, they can easily go wayward really quickly. And that's something that I don't want to happen.

Adam: But how do you keep creative people on track without stifling that creativity? It's a fine line.

Matt: It is a fine line. You know chefs are creative no matter what. And it's just we don't do any sort of bells and whistles at Chiswick. There is nothing about gels and dots and things like that. It's what it is. You can still be creative in the genre quite easily. It's just you've got to think about it.

Andy: You've mentioned you're one of the, well Chiswick is one of the early places to really embrace that paddock to plate style of food. How hard is it for you guys as a business to, for one of the better phrases, stay on trend and make sure that your food offerings in your venues are what people want to go to? And it's not the same thing all the time.

Matt: Yeah, yeah. I think that's just being in the venues. Monitoring the venues. Working the venues. Eating at the venues. And also seeing what else is around. Has the food changed at Chiswicks since it first opened? Yes, it has. Has it got better? Yes, it has. But that's just through being a well oiled machine. You've got some blowers out there...

Adam: It's authentic...

Matt: Authentic. He's doing the gardening.

Adam: The farm to plate thing...

Matt: Yeah.

Adam: Obviously, your family has the Moran Farm. So did you follow that specifically because you had the farm connection and you wanted to that through? Or was it something else that?

Matt: There is no question. It definitely started through that. And the reason being, how it started was I saw how hard farmers work. I know the returns. I developed the term "paddock to plate" which I actually own the concept with ITV and that was part of I wanted to get out a little reality TV and really push home how we should look after our producers and our farmer a little bit more than what we do. And don't take them for granted because they work damn bloody hard to get this incredible produce. And chefs are only as good as what they are using. And if we don't have the farmers and the producers then we don't have chefs. Full stop.

And that's just something I was really passionate about, and I fell in love with. The farm is not the original family farm. It only came about, this one, about 18 years ago. And I became a partner with my dad and his younger brother. And I ended up buying out the younger brother, and a bit of my dad's share, so I want to run it as one of my businesses. And dad obviously has a share in it, and he works it and looks after it. And does what he wants. He wants to create beautiful fat lambs and fat steers and whatever else, so I let him do that. And we use it in the restaurant. Yeah it just became a real love affair. Farm is one of my real loves, there is no question about it. I don't love farming, but I love the farm.

Andy: Food providence is huge now, isn't it? People are increasingly aware of being aware of where it comes from. Did you feel a responsibility yourself to help to push that movement?

Matt: Oh look, if you want to call it a responsibility or not, it's something that's gonna happen from now on. People want to know who's growing their food, producing their food, nurturing their food, what's in it, what they are eating. It's just common days. It's not a fad. That's reality. People want to know where their food comes from. And that's why you see in restaurants now, you see branded product. Whether it's David Blackmore beef or Moran's lamb or Hombre ducks or whatever it is. People will see that brand and identify that brand as quality, so then they'll want to buy it.

Adam: Why was it of such importance to you to own the farm? You said you wanted to make it one of your businesses. So why the investment in basically owning the supply chain?

Matt: Oh, it was a family thing to. I love the farm. I wanted to keep it in my family. My uncle wanted out, and I had the dough, I suppose, to do it. I don't want any issues later on down the track. It's mine. I just wanted to make that concrete, I suppose.

Andy: You mention branded food earlier with some of the stuff you mentioned. Is that something that's in Matt Moran's future? Having some branded produce of some sort?

Matt: Maybe, look, I already have Moran's Family lamb and Moran's Family beef. I've been thinking about doing some eggs. Maybe. Who knows. I've got a food factory that we do a lot of our catering out of, so maybe one day I might do something else. Yeah, it's not on the agenda at the moment. I'm not lying to you when I say that. It's not on the agenda. There's plenty else happening at the moment.

Adam: How do you actually go about setting your pricing? Particularly for different venues, different cities, different locations?

Matt: Different things come into mind. You know one cost, rent, mortgage, location, competition. We'll do an analysis on what the competition is doing around us. Barangaroo is a great example now. I'm going through that right now, on what to charge. And it's pretty much looking at what everybody else is doing and looking where we sit in the pie. Whether we are a little bit more upmarket or a little bit more downmarket. And then obviously the most important thing is whether it's economical. Whether you're gonna make any money or not. There is no point in opening a big restaurant and spending ten million bucks on it and not making any money. I'm not saying that's what I spent on it, but on any business.

Andy: How far down the development track have you got before when you've pulled the pin on a venue?

Matt: That's interesting. I was gonna do a venue years ago in the city. And we got over a year into it and it was a massive site. I spent a lot of money on it. No one else in the company really wanted to do, except for me and Bruce. We ended up pulling the pin on it. Probably the smartest move I ever did. I don't think the site would have worked. I'm not gonna name the site. But, yeah, it could have done a bit of damage if it didn't work. And strangely enough the site has never worked. It's never been taken on. No one has taken it on. I heard recently that maybe someone might have been doing something there, but that was years and years ago. Six or seven years ago.

Andy: What was the moment that it ticked from, I want to do this, to yeah, actually I've changed my mind?

Matt: I think you gotta be careful with ego. And you think you're untouchable and you can do things. And I think that was one of those moments where I thought, "Wow, how cool would that be?" But, not realising the position where it was and really thinking about it.
I suppose, the more we got into it, the more deeper we got into it the more money we're spending on it. I'd done the design and everything ready to go to the D.A. Spent a lot of money on it. And then realising, wow, God, if this really does happen and it doesn't work, God, it's gonna really hurt. So yeah we pulled out to the dismay of the landlord, who wasn't very happy at all. I haven't really spoken to him since.

Andy: You mentioned ego there. Do you have people in your business that you hire so that they will help keep your ego in check? Or do you find that it's something that you, yourself, go, now I'm big enough and ugly enough now to recognise my own mistakes?

Matt: You know, what? I've got people at home that do that to me every day. Bring me back down to size. We're a very modern company today. We have a CEO that tells us what to do all the time. And that's the great thing about it.

We're not a dictatorship, we never have been. If you don't listen to your staff, you might as well not have them. You might as well just have people that are yes men. But, we don't have that. And I've never had that. The great thing about my chefs is that they always perk up and tell me if I'm wrong. Sometimes I am wrong. Sometimes I'm right. Sometimes they're right. Sometimes they're wrong. It's just the way it goes.

Andy: Do you think that's important on a business, to have those people?

Matt: I think it's really important to have people, strong people around. I've always had strong people around me from day one. And I want to continue to be challenged.
There was a time recently that one of my chefs wanted something on the menu, and in the end I had to pull rank because it wasn't right. And I know it wasn't right. And he got really upset and really pissed off. And the next day he came to my office and apologised. And I said to him, "You know, mate, why you got so upset? It's one reason. You care. And the minute you stop caring that's the minute you shouldn't be doing it for me anymore." And I said, "I don't want you to ever lose that, because to me, that is real passion. And that's what I love about you." And that's why he's worked for me for 14 years. And he sat there and got emotional again and off he went.

It's true though. He tried to fight me on it because he believed in it. He's passionate and that's what I love. I love passionate people. Chefs are passionate. There is no question about that.

Adam: So it's clear you've got the people lesson right. But, just to finish this off, what's been the biggest mistake you've made in your business career, and what lessons have you actually learned from that?

Matt: I suppose, the biggest mistake is when I first started. And after three months saying to my partner, "Jeez this is easy, we've got so much money in the bank." And then not realising he hadn't paid anybody.

You learn very quickly to have good relationships with the suppliers and they look after you. And if you don't pay them, well they won't look after you. I've always paid my bills. I think that's really important. If I don't have enough money in the accounts to pay my bills, well then I take it out of my own personal money. One thing you never want to do is upset your producers or your suppliers, because if they have something different, they won't give it to you.

Adam: Fantastic words of wisdom. Thank you so much for joining us Matt.

Matt: Pleasure guys.

Adam: Mattmoran.com.au, I think is the site if people want to find out more about you, if they don't already know enough about you. Or you can contact us This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Keep the five star ratings coming on iTunes as well. Thanks for joining us.

 

 

 

‘We nearly went broke a couple of times’: Celebrity chef Matt Moran
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